The best songs of 2017: Or, my soundtrack for doing the dishes

5 Jan

As in previous years, in 2017 I listened to new releases most weeks as they came out on Spotify. Most of the time, I didn’t like anything that I heard, but I dragged 43 of my favorites over to my Best Of playlist (some of them I later deleted when I found that I was regularly skipping them). I also listened to several critics’ compilations of the songs of the year to see what I had missed, and I’m glad I did because they either reminded me of music I hadn’t given much of a chance, or they exposed me to new albums for the first time. Some of the albums were admirable for their creativity or lyrics or production, but they weren’t all that enjoyable to listen to, so they didn’t make my list. Here are the highlights of the songs that did:

1. “If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell has always seemed a bit boring to me, but I really listened to the lyrics on this new album, and “If We Were Vampires” is brilliant poetry.  This is a terribly sad love song about taking advantage of the moments you have together. After listening to it, I feel inspired to “work hard till the end of my shift.”

2. “Hold Me Close,” Overcoats

Maybe the catchiest song of the year. Perfect harmonies. Also, I watched a couple of interview videos with this duo, and their chemistry makes me like their music even more.

3. “Provider,” Frank Ocean

These impressionistic lyrics. I mean, who can make sense of them? Not me, but I memorized some of them and couldn’t stop listening to this song. It’s subtle in its structure, and the way the drums enter the song is surprising and inevitable.

4. “About a Bruise,” Iron & Wine

The tone of Sam Beam’s voice is so rich, and it blends perfectly with the tones of the bassy folk ensemble in this song. The repeated lines and harmonies also made it one of my favorites this year.

5. “Songbird,” Cory Chisel, Adriel Denae

My wife went to high school with Cory Chisel, and I’m glad because otherwise I might never have heard of him. This is a singer-songwriter who belongs on a best of list, and I hope he someday gets the audience he deserves. “Songbird” is a gentle song with haunting harmonies.

6. “Supercut,” Lorde

Lorde’s new album, “Melodrama,” was on everyone’s best-of lists, and for good reason. I have been eagerly awaiting this album, after her brilliant 2013 album, “Pure Heroine.” The new one is also great, and “Supercut” is one of the catchiest songs. She is an intense, passionate singer. (A few other songs on this album are also worthy of being on this list. Some are explicit, but you can hear the full album edited if you click on “1 More Release” at the bottom of the play list on the album.)

7. “My Poor Heart,” The Glorious Sons

This song is one that I would never have discovered if I didn’t click on so many duds in the Spotify new releases. I hadn’t ever heard of this band before, but they have snappy, smart, narrative lyrics sung by a dynamic front man and some driving guitars that are used without overdoing anything. It’s smart hard rock that always sounds like it’s on the verge of disaster.

8. “Bad Liar,” Selena Gomez

An intoxicating voice, used with restraint, almost a whisper at times. Sweet and searching. One of the most compelling female pop stars.

9. “Boston,” Brendan Fletcher

Here’s another artist who apparently isn’t on the radar of any critics. Brendan Fletcher was a contender on The Voice, and maybe that makes him someone people don’t take seriously, but this song captivates me. He has this raspy voice (maybe there’s a trend toward raspy voices on my list) and some simple but evocative lyrics that transport me.

10. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You),” Kesha, Dolly Parton

I listened to Kesha’s new album when it came out, but despite her obvious talent, I didn’t love the first several songs, so I gave up. When I saw her on so many best-of lists, I decided to revisit the album, and I discovered this song late in the album: a duet with the Dolly Parton, for whom the song was originally written–by Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert. This remake has a new edge to it, and Dolly Parton’s now-frail voice is great as harmony to Kesha’s raw power.

Other songs I liked a lot:

“The Mother,” Brandi Carlile

“Everything Now,” Arcade Fire

“Do Not Disturb,” Drake (edited)

“Intentions (feat. Dan Caplen),” Macklemore (edited)

“There Are Many Ways To Say I Love You,” Sylvan Esso

“Future Me,” Echosmith

“Love,” Lana Del Rey

“Getaway Car,” Taylor Swift


The year in music: My favorite 13 songs of 2016

26 Dec

I won’t pretend that I’m a pop music expert or that I’ve listened to everything that came out this year. My experience is mostly by way of Spotify’s new releases and two music podcasts: “The Popcast,” by the New York Times critics and “All Songs Considered,” by NPR. Most of the time, I disagree with the critics’ tastes, but they’re still fun to listen to, and every now and then I discover music I love forever.

Throughout the year, I added songs to my “Best of 2016” playlist, but only if they were songs I knew I’d want to listen to again and again—and if the songs weren’t offensive in their themes or lyrics. There are many songs I admired for their quality, but they didn’t move me very much, so they didn’t make the cut. The songs only this list are the ones I was most excited about when they showed up again on my Spotify playlist.

1. “Too Good,” Drake, feat. Rhianna

Drake’s singing voice doesn’t exactly inspire, but he is so versatile and so smooth as he goes back and forth between rapping and singing that he achieves an everyday Mr. Cool quality. The interplay with Rhianna gives the song a boost, as well as the lyrics, which are about loss and remorse and a kind of self-righteous pep talk. It’s great fun, and it’s so catchy I put it on repeat for about two days straight. (No official video of this one, but you can hear it in my Spotify playlist, along with the other the top 13 and others that I liked a lot.)

2. “Ophelia,” Lumineers

In just 2 minutes, 30 seconds the Lumineers build a gentle love song to a soaring anthem—all with characteristically simple instrumentation. One of the catchiest songs of the year. “Cleopatra” is also a can’t-miss song on the new album.

3. “Ultraviolet,” Dagny

Dagny was one of my favorite discoveries this year. She’s got a clear, young-but-wise voice, and the blending of the vocals with the choppy rhythms of the guitars and drums helped me wash the dishes even faster.

4. “Closer,” The Chainsmokers

The Chainsmokers are a new phenomenon: producers with a great formula but, for the most part, no-name singers. They had a lot of big hits this year, but this one was my favorite because of the long chorus and the final refrain that’s fun to sing for someone who is getting alarmingly older: “We ain’t never getting older.”

5. “All We Ever Knew,” The Head and the Heart

I’ve been anxiously awaiting more music from this band, which is a big group of musicians playing a lot of instruments at once without ever overwhelming the gruff-yet-tender vocals. This is my favorite song on the album, which is more “pop” than previous offerings.

6. “Rock Bottom,” Hailee Steinfeld

This is a song that builds and builds to a soaring show-off chorus with harmonies, and it’s fun to hear Hailee Steinfeld show off.

7. “Lost Boy,” Ruth B

The lyrics and the voice seem to contradict in this song. It’s about being a lost boy, with no responsibilities, nothing to hinder a life of pleasure. But the voice is so mournful that, even without saying it, you know she doesn’t believe it. It’s a fantasy. But it’s a beautiful fantasy, and the melody is lovely and memorable.

8. “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” Charlie Puth, feat. Selena Gomez

Charlie Puth is trying a bit too hard in this song, but it’s such a singable tune, and Selena Gomez’s voice is mesmerizing.

9. “Puppy Knuckles,” The Frights

This song has a great rhythm mixed with a bored-in-the-garage tone.

10. “You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen’s last album was released not long before he died, and it adds a gravitas to the songs, which have overtly religious lyrics. He’s basically growling, but it’s soothing and melodic, and it makes me want to sing along and meditate.

11. “Blended Family,” Alicia Keys, feat. A$AP Rocky

Alicia Keys delivers a love song from a step mother to her children in a blended family. It’s moving and also features a brutally honest rap in the middle that reminds us of the difficulty some blended families endure.

12. “Love on the Weekend,” John Mayer

John Mayer’s sandpapery voice works perfectly with his guitar work in this catchy love song.

13. “OBLIVIUS,” The Strokes
This song feels like it’s on the verge of losing control, and it makes you want to belt out the chorus.

Best songs of 2015: or, What I listened to while doing the dishes

31 Dec

At this stage of my life, I usually gravitate to catchy songs that I can sing along to. When I listen to music, I want to have fun, to relieve the stress of doing the dishes or driving home from work. I also love Top 10 lists, so this year, I made a conscious effort to listen to as many new releases as I could on Spotify and make a playlist from which I could choose my own favorite songs of the year.

With a little commentary, I also added some YouTube videos that show the lyrics in many cases. I purposely avoided some of the official music videos because I wouldn’t want my own kids to watch them, and I want to focus on the song independent of the artist’s visual interpretation of them. Without further ado:

1. “FourFiveSeconds,” by Rhianna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney

With this kind of star power making a song, the expectations are high, and for me they delivered. It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not sing along to it. Plus, the lyrics have a longing quality, a sense that the speaker is on the verge of losing it and is asking for some understanding. I think everyone feels that way every now and then.

2. “Love Yourself,” Justin Bieber

For me, this was the best album of the year: Justin Bieber’s Purpose. Some might say it’s the true awakening of Biebs–he’s no longer a child star–but it’s really the second mature album he has done, after Journals. It’s just that this time he has some production help that turns every song into a hit. His vocals are subdued, and the melody is king. It was difficult to pick just two songs from this album to put on my list, and it’s the only album that I felt I had to include more than one song from. If you like this song and haven’t listened to the album, Purpose, you need to.

“Love Yourself” is a song I sing while doing the dishes, and I can’t get it out of my head, so I keep singing it as a lullaby to my 1-year-old daughter as I’m rocking her to sleep. It’s a gentle song about breaking up. It’s got some attitude, and it’s kind of a weird message, but overall a song that gives puts me in a good mood every time.

3. “Great Big Storm,” Nate Ruess

Nate Ruess, who is also the singer for Grammy darling Fun., released a solo album this year, and it’s terrific. I especially loved this song, which showcases some of Ruess’s genius for melody. He has a piercingly high voice, and yet he creates these songs that sound like they belong at full volume in a stadium.

4. “What Do You Mean?”, Justin Bieber

This is the second song from the same album on my list–the only album that placed two. It’s another one that gets in your head, and you don’t want it to leave.

5. “A New Wave,” by Sleater-Kinney

A bright song with some punch. It’s got two guitars that are almost out of control, dueling for the duration of the song. Add the harmonies in the vocals, and the effect is doubled. I feel like I’m sitting in a garage listening to these ladies go for it with abandon. The fact that it’s the first album from this band in a decade also adds some gravitas to the song; they came back together for a reason.

6. “Something in the Way You Move,” Ellie Goulding

Along with Justin Bieber’s album, Ellie Goulding’s Delirium was one of my three favorite albums of the year. This is one of those songs that make you move around while doing the dishes. She’s got a lightweight voice, really, but likable, and the songs are well put together.

7. “Pedestrian at Best,” Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett’s debut, for which she also scored a Grammy nomination for best new artist this year, is one of my three favorite albums of the year. I could pick any number of songs from this album (I also love “An Illustration of Loneliness,” which showcases both her quirky and perceptive lyrics, as well as some bluesy rock guitar riffs). But this song, “Pedestrian at Best,” is one where Barnett feels like she’s almost out of control from the first seconds of the song, and it sustains that energy throughout. It’s in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” as well as Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” plus wild guitar work.

8. “Back of the Car,” RAC

I have no idea what this song is about, but every time the chorus comes around, I want to shout it out as I’m doing the dishes.

9. “Fight Song,” Rachel Platten

This song is a power-pop anthem. It’s refreshing to hear a song that is designed to inspire.

10. “As Time Goes,” JR JR

This is another band that I had never heard of before my adventure through Spotify this year, but JR JR has a real talent for melody and rhythm. This was a fun discovery this year.


Honorable mentions:

“Take It as It Comes,” Imaginary Future

Like the RAC song above, I don’t know much about this song or the band, but it still made me happy every time it came around on my playlist over the dinner dishes. A happy, singable song with rhythm.

“Wasn’t Expecting That,” Jamie Lawson

I first heard this song on “The Tonight Show.” Jimmy Fallon explained that Jamie Lawson was signed to Ed Sheeran’s new record label, which is cool. The lyrics of this song take you to new places, particularly at the end.

“Forever Mine,” Andra Day

This one didn’t quite fit my description of songs I loved to do the dishes to, but I’m so impressed with Andra Day’s voice, I wanted to at least mention this song.

First-page project: What I learned from studying great books’ first impressions

30 Jul

The first page is the most important page of any book. If it doesn’t surprise or impress or speak to the reader — or some combination thereof — he might not read the second page.

I decided to read the first page of some contemporary classics to see what I could learn about how to approach the first page of my own novel. Here are some of my observations:

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Pynchon finds a way to say who, what, when, where and why in the beginning of his novels — but in a distinctive, wild, frenetic way. I get the feeling that I’m about to lose control as I read this story, and somehow, that gives me confidence in the writer that he will lead me somewhere. 

John Updike, Rabbit at Rest

In the first sentence, we are injected into Rabbit Angstrom’s brain, and we learn that he “has a funny sudden feeling that … ” These Rabbit novels are masterful in the way they stay so close to his point of view. It’s as if we are reading a first-person novel, but there is the opportunity to take a step back every now and then for an omniscient view. A very versatile POV, and, in this book, established quickly. 

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

It almost seems too direct, but Franzen uses his first paragraph to set a mood by describing the landscape. The second sentence is this: “You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” It’s almost cliche, but I guess the way he gets around it is to surround the sentence with some surprising phrases: “The madness of an autum prairie cold front” and “Gust after gust of disorder.” Then, we enter the third-person point of view of an old man and realize all this — even the cliche? — is in his point of view. Describing the landscape or anything else from one character’s POV can be a great tool of characterization. 

Philip Roth, American Pastoral

“The Swede.” Roth begins this novel by describing an anomaly: a Swede in a Jewish community. How does the Swede change the people around him? This is an effective tool: Begin with the anomaly in your fictional world. By doing so, you can explain the world itself as background quickly, and the reader is patient with you because there is a clear reason for the background. 

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Lots of characters named in this first page. Some of the frenetic, almost-out-of-control feeling that Pynchon delivers. But also more confusion. The first sentence is this: “124 was spiteful.” We assume this is a number for a woman, but we are going to have to keep reading to find out what it’s referring to. It’s tough to manage the amount of confusion that will be palatable on the first page. The controlled release of information and background details is one of the biggest challenges of the first page. 

Tools of the trade: Plot map on a drip pan

25 Jul

 I’ve written before about the merits of plotting a novel in the same way as plotting a screen play. In the past, I have used a Google spreadsheet to track all the scenes of my story, but I’ve always felt it was a bit harder to keep the bigger picture straight on my screen.

It seems like the classic approach is note cards on a bulletin board, but–call me cheap (you’d be accurate)–it’s kind of expensive to buy a really big bulletin board.

So, today at Walmart I found a cheaper solution: a drip pan. They’re used for catching oil under a car, and they’re nice and big at 47-by-25 inches. Plenty of room for lots of scene cards. It only close $11.97. Then I bought a package of 52 button magnets for $5.98. We already had note cards, so the total was about $18.

Now the question is, what should I write on the note cards?